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DID YOU READ

“Innocence,” “Drunken Angel”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Innocence,” Leisure Time Features/Homevision, 2005]

A semi-secret, anxiety-cranked daydream movie released briefly to a few American cities in 2005, and one of the most original French films of the decade, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence” (2004) is pure code, metaphor and mystery, and at the same it’s seethingly tangible. Derived from a (currently) untranslated Frank Wedekind story, and pulsing with conceptual potency, the movie feels genuinely sui generis, a verdant, ambiguous reverie on childhood, consciousness and oppression. It’s all parable, all the time, a Rorschach-blot scenario played out in feminized Old World ritual: we’re in a vast tract of European forest, disarmingly illuminated by chandelier lamps, subgrounded with what seems to be an ancient, rumbling sewer system and surrounded by an unscalable wall. At the center lies a huge girls’ school, populated by only two teachers (Hélène de Fougerolles and “La Vie en Rose”‘s Marion Cotillard) and a dozen or so prepubescent girls, each wearing age-coded hair ribbons, new students arriving in suddenly materialized coffins and with fading memories of their families and lives outside. There are no men, and many rules. The school maintains a nurturing, if constricting, cloistered atmosphere, but there are glimpses of matters — disappearances, deaths, violations — we, like the students, never fully understand. The girls, gently examined, indoctrinated and trained in matters of traditional girlishness, are being certainly being groomed, but for what?

A debut filmmaker with electrifying confidence, Hadzihalilovic cat-plays with our instant sense of dread — unanswered narrative questions are supposed to have horrifying answers, right? — but “Innocence” has a more sophisticated program than you might suspect from her credits as Gaspar Noé’s producer and editor (and girlfriend?). The mysteries at the film’s pitiful heart aren’t sexual, but then again, they are: Wedekind always worked in lurid metaphoric colors, and “Innocence” is nothing if not a fable of puberty told not as awakening but as subjugation. Call it the feminist flipside to Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de Conduite,” where revolt is not a condoned option (a single escapee is far from heroic, dropping into the unknown woods over the wall, never to be seen again), and Wedekind’s anti-bourgeois take on the “tragedy of sex” prevails. In its view of childhood as totalitarian citizenship, Hadzihalilovic’s film stands, quietly, in a gender-furious class by itself.

At the same time, the particularities are intensely imagined and naturalistic, and its symbology is as subterranean as you’d like to dig. Rich as a fruitcake in its Romantic tableaux (photographed, lushly, by Benoît Debie), the movie is not merely ironically titled — like David Lynch’s films, its heart bleeds for the systematic death of purity while never idealizing the young. Shun critics who fail to respond to this lovely puzzle, or those for whom it conjures only thoughts of pedophilia. (Like A.O. Scott in the Times, for whom the movie limned a fine line “between cinematic art and exploitation,” and like one New York Film Critics Circle member — alright, Leah Rozen — who dismissed it as a film only for those interested in “little girls in panties,” this said less than an hour after Rozen argued that documentary features aren’t “films” in the context of giving out a “Best First Film” award, in this case to Bennett Miller, whose first feature was not “Capote” but “The Cruise.” Never mind that “Innocence” is a First Film achievement unrivaled in recent memory.)

Illiteracy and small-mindedness are everywhere, of course, which is why if The Criterion Collection didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. This month they’ve exhumed Akira Kurosawa’s first true career-maker, “Drunken Angel” (1948), a rarely seen classic of the Japanese postwar era, which is distinctive in world cinema as out-noiring noir — no American film from the time can approach the savage metaphors, raging desperation and hopeless squalor expressed in the modern-day films of Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Suzuki, Masumura, Oshima, Imamura, et al. “Drunken Angel” is something of a chamber piece: the setting is a clutch of hovels and shops huddled around a giant sump, which bubbles toxically and into which ripe garbage is regularly dumped. Immediately, we’re thrust into a combative pas de deux, between a self-hating alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) and the tubercular yakuza (Toshiro Mifune) he reluctantly treats for a gunshot wound. Every scene the two characters share ends up in a brawl; they loathe each other, but the doctor feels compelled to get the gangster to respect his TB and possibly survive it by living clean, and the hood demurs, lest his machismo be called into question. That is, until another yakuza gets out of prison and starts sniffing around for his ex-girlfriend, who now runs the doctor’s practice.

Both of the stars are fierce and fascinating (and omigod, so young), but while the chiseled and romantic Mifune seemed destined for stardom (this was the first of his seven collaborations with Kurosawa), Shimura dominates the film; it’s his character, after all, that fuels the plot, and Shimura brings a wary, self-knowing belligerence to the role that’s surprising (given how we’re used to seeing him, as the elder sage in “The Seven Samurai” or the dying office mouse in “Ikiru” — or the wizened scientist in “Godzilla”). Compare this moment to any American noir: when Shimura’s grizzled quack, who drinks antiseptic meant for patients, defiantly confronts the murderous gang leader and scoffs, “I’ve killed more people than you.” (There’s also language — the Japanese equivalents of shit, bitch, asshole, whore — you can’t hear in postwar films here.) “Drunken Angel” couldn’t comment on the ongoing American occupation, due to censorship rules that ended, with the occupation, four years later, as did so many subsequent films (Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships,” say), leaving Kurosawa’s potent pessimism aimed unambiguously at his own culture, emerging guilt-ridden from the war and barely able to pull itself out of the sewer. The film’s Criterionization includes two documentaries about the making of the film and Kurosawa’s early career, and the obligatory commentary track by professional Nipponophile Donald Ritchie, reigning king of the Asian-cinema-scholarship monologue.

“Innocence” (Homevision) and “Drunken Angel” (Criterion) are now available on DVD.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

via GIPHY

IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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